A newsletter on progress-space research and audience development for cultural leaders. One reader calls it, "sometimes funny"

(Reading time: 2m, 27s)

My wife and I were watching Free Solo the other day — the movie about Alex Honnold climbing El Capitan without any safety equipment. Christie was on the edge of her seat, watching this guy hang on to the side of a rock, a thousand feet in the air, holding on by the tips of his toes.

I was unfazed.

“It’s no different than writing an almost-daily newsletter.”

Christie turned to look at my face.

I stared back at her.

“It is! You never know exactly where you’ll go next, and one wrong move and you could—”

“Miss your random, self-imposed deadline of 8 AM?”

“Exactly. You could miss your publishing deadline and plummet to your death.”

What’s the difference between visitor studies and design research?

Yesterday, I wrote about Aubrey Bergauer’s successes at the California Symphony and how design research played a role in restructuring the organization. I said that I had been surprised when a reader wrote in last month and seemed to consider design research as a form of visitor studies.

I think they’re different; I wrote that design research might be thought of as visitor studies on steroids.

What does that mean?

Visitor studies is, well, let’s just use the Visitor Studies Association’s definition:

The interdisciplinary study of human experiences within informal learning environments. The systematic collection and analysis of information or data to inform decisions about interpretive exhibits and programs.
  • Visitor studies follow rigorous research methods that adhere to the standards of the social sciences.
  • Visitor studies draw from and contribute to the theory and practice of social science.
  • Visitor studies are designed to improve the practices of learning in informal environments.

In other words, visitor studies focuses on visitors (limitation number 1) and on visitors’ understanding or experience regarding exhibits and programs (limitation number 2).

“Limitation” isn’t quite the right word. I’m not suggesting that visitor studies is somehow inferior to design research — it just has a clear scope and focus.

As far as I know, visitor studies does not extend to studying how a museum fits within the larger context of people’s lives; It doesn’t explore the catalysts for change in people’s relationship to a museum, or how different people view a museum’s ability to provide value to people’s lives (not just educational).

As we saw in yesterday’s example, design research isn’t restricted to studying visitors or their learning experiences in relation to individual programs or exhibitions. Design research can be applied to all sorts of people — from devoted members to lapsed donors to people who would never set foot inside a museum. It can even be used as an aid in restructuring the organization — for example, merging marketing and devleopment departments, as Bergauer did.

Design research aligns stakeholders around the audience journey.

Under traditional metrics for success, employees can go about their work as if the audience revolves around the organization — Sort of the way people used to believe the sun revolved around Earth. Design research is a tool to remind everyone of the balance of power and the real order of the universe: The organization exists in service to the audience.

But I digress.

Maybe one way to summarize the difference is by saying that visitor studies aims for improvements to programs and exhibitions, whereas design research aims for growth and development in any part of the organization and its relationship to the audience.

What do you think of that characterization of the difference between VS and DR? I’d love to hear from you — especially any evaluators out there.

Thanks for reading,



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